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'Through hell and back': AFL prelim previews

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Roar Guru
7th September, 2021
2

And then there were four.

The identity of this year’s AFL grand finalists will be known this weekend, with the preliminary finals to decide who faces off for the ultimate prize at Optus Stadium on Saturday, September 25.

Fresh off a week’s break each, Melbourne and Port Adelaide will start as the favourites to progress to the final match of the season, but they will both face serious challenges from the Geelong Cats and Western Bulldogs, respectively.

In both instances it will be the third match-ups of the sides this season, while both are also rematches from Round 23, won on those occasions by the Dees and Power.

Robbie Gray of the Power celebrates a goal

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The Cats rebounded from their poor loss to the Power in their qualifying final by fighting off the GWS Giants to win by 35 points, with captain Joel Selwood overtaking Corey Enright, now on the club’s coaching panel, as the most capped player in the club’s history.

Meanwhile, the Western Bulldogs came from behind to edge out the Brisbane Lions by a solitary point, with their finals form this season drawing parallels to their inspiring run to the 2016 premiership, which they won after finishing seventh at the end of the minor rounds.

The stage is now set for what should be two enthralling preliminary finals, as four sides attempt to end premiership droughts ranging from 57 years (Melbourne) to five (Western Bulldogs).

Here is your preview to the two preliminary finals.

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Melbourne versus Geelong Cats
Friday, September 10, 7:50pm (AEST)
Optus Stadium
Last meeting in a final: Melbourne 10.15 (75) defeated Geelong Cats 6.10 (46) at the MCG, first elimination final, 2018
This season: Melbourne 12.13 (85) defeated Geelong Cats 9.6 (60) at the MCG in Round 4, Melbourne 12.9 (81) defeated Geelong Cats 12.5 (77) at GMHBA Stadium in Round 23

The last time Melbourne played in a preliminary final at Optus Stadium, they left with their tails between their legs after suffering a humiliating 11-goal loss at the hands of the West Coast Eagles after failing to kick a goal in the first half.

It caused psychological and mental scars for the side, which would crash to second-last on the ladder the following year, before narrowly missing the finals last year when the Western Bulldogs snatched the final top-eight berth that was up for grabs.

Simon Goodwin

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

This year, though, the club has produced a season of sustained excellence, claiming their first minor premiership since 1964 after Max Gawn kicked a captain’s goal after the final siren to sink the Geelong Cats, their preliminary final opponents this Friday night, at Kardinia Park in Round 23.

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A win would see Simon Goodwin’s men go a long way towards burying several demons, so to speak, and qualify for their first grand final since 2000, which they lost to Essendon by ten goals.

In the 57 painfully long years that have passed since the Dees’ most recent flag, the club has gone through hell and back, ranging from the controversial sacking of Norm Smith to record defeats, the coaching role changing hands and a tanking scandal, among other issues.

For the Cats, time is running out to win an elusive flag while Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Patrick Dangerfield remain at the club, while Jeremy Cameron also arrived at Kardinia Park this season for his best shot at a premiership medal.

Playing against his old side the GWS Giants for the first time, Cameron booted two goals, while Hawkins chipped in with five of his own, as the Cats won their semi-final by 35 points to book themselves an 11th preliminary final berth in 18 years dating back to 2004.

It was the perfect way to toast captain Selwood, who assumed the club’s games record holder from his triple premiership winning teammate Corey Enright.

Joel Selwood of the Cats leads his team out onto the field

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

They will now face a baptism of fire from Melbourne in the preliminary final, and the Dees will be out to make it a hat trick of wins over the Cats this year after claiming victories in Rounds 4 and 23.

In that latter match, the Cats seemingly had one hand on the minor premiership when they led by 44 points early in the third quarter, only for the Dees to roar back into the contest and steal victory from the jaws of defeat, thanks to Max Gawn after the siren.

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Having benefitted from the week off, I think the Dees can continue their fairytale into the decider.

For the winner: a berth in the grand final, which for Melbourne would be their first since 2000, or for the Cats their second consecutive grand final, and fifth since 2007.

For the loser: season over and a summer to ponder what could’ve been.

Prediction: Melbourne by 18 points.

Port Adelaide versus Western Bulldogs
Saturday, September 11, 7:40pm (AEST)
Adelaide Oval
Last meeting in a final: Never
This season: Western Bulldogs 15.6 (96) defeated Port Adelaide 12.5 (77) at the Adelaide Oval in Round 9; Port Adelaide 9.12 (66) defeated Western Bulldogs 10.4 (64) at Marvel Stadium in Round 23

The second preliminary final sees Port Adelaide attempt to qualify for their third grand final since entering the competition in 1997, when they take on a Western Bulldogs side that is riding a wave of momentum following two contrasting finals victories.

Ken Hinkley’s side suffocated the Geelong Cats out of the game in their qualifying final at the Adelaide Oval, restricting their opponents to just five goals while booting 12 of their own in a 43-point win.

Anchored by 32 disposals each from ex-captains Ollie Wines and Travis Boak, the win dispelled any doubts as to whether they could beat the top teams, and installed them as second-favourite (only behind Melbourne) for the flag.

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They will need to raise their game a notch when the Western Bulldogs come to town, with the sons of the west riding high following their thrilling one-point win over the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba in their semi-final last Saturday night.

It was a match neither side could dominate, and in the end, despite an injury scare for captain Marcus Bontempelli, the Dogs did enough to outlast the Lions with a rushed minor score with a minute remaining proving to be just enough.

Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs kicks the ball

(Photo by Rob Blakers/Getty Images)

Luke Beveridge’s men now find themselves in a preliminary final for the second time in five years, and as was the case in 2016, were able to get this far after winning consecutive knock-out finals.

The two matches between Port and the Bulldogs were split this season, with strong performance from Marcus Bontempelli and Aaron Naughton seeing the Dogs win by 19 points at the Adelaide Oval in Round 9, before Port returned serve with a two-point win in Round 23.

With or without Bontempelli, the Western Bulldogs will dare to dream and be out to ensure that the second consecutive grand final to be played outside of Victoria is an all-Victorian affair for the second consecutive season.

However, I think Port will have learnt some lessons from last year’s heartbreaking preliminary final loss to Richmond, and they should take the points in this one and book themselves a grand final berth for the first time in 14 years.

For the winner: a berth in the grand final, which for Port Adelaide would be their first since 2007, or for the Western Bulldogs their first since 2016 and just their fourth ever.

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For the loser: season over and a summer to ponder what could’ve been.

Prediction: Port Adelaide by eight points.

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